Despite Pushback, Austin OKs Purchase Of Another Hotel For People Transitioning Out Of Homelessness
The Austin City Council approved the purchase of another hotel in Northwest Austin that would ultimately house people trying to transition out of homelessness.
District 6 Council Member Mackenzie Kelly cast the lone vote against the $9.5-million purchase of the Candlewood Suites in her district. She cited criticism from the community and officials in Williamson County, where the hotel is located.
The city hopes to ultimately house at least 83 people at the hotel, which will also provide on-site clinical and occupational services managed by Caritas.
Last week, the council OK'd the purchase of another hotel in North Austin, but the Candlewood purchase was postponed at Kelly's request. She said she felt the community needed more time to consider the proposal.
D6 residents expressed opposition in feedback to Kelly and during two protests and an online town hall. They argued the presence of homeless people would lower property values in the Pecan Park and Anderson Mill neighborhoods near U.S. Highway 183 and FM 620; that it would affect nearby business; and that it would lead to increases in crime.
The city faced similar pushback from its purchase of the Rodeway Inn on I-35 and Oltorf Street in November 2019. Neighbors argued they didn't have enough time to vet the proposal and that the hotel would attract criminal behavior.
Ahead of Thursday's vote, Kelly said she supported the overall model of housing combined with services, known as permanent supportive housing, but said she couldn't ignore her constituents.
"I cannot support this permanent supportive housing, because of the outcries from the community about it being not in the right location," she said. "This process, this purchase and the hotel strategy is one that deserves a lot more thought and transparency."
Williamson County commissioners had written a letter to the city requesting it hold off on the purchase for six months, expressing "deep concern for the [city's] lack of communication." Kelly tried to get the item postponed until Aug. 31, but didn't have the support of any other council members.
"The hope was that we would all move forward recognizing that this is the path forward. Because those folks we keep describing as 'homeless' they won't be anymore."Mayor Pro Tem Natasha Harper-Madison
State Sen. Charles Schwertner also protested the plan in a letter, calling it a "hasty and ill-considered proposal."
Mayor Pro Tem Natasha Harper-Madison emphasized the hotel would not be a shelter, which many critics asserted. She suggested "stoking fears and misinformation" had stymied the discussion.
"The hope was that we would all move forward recognizing that this is the path forward. Because those folks we keep describing as 'homeless' they won't be anymore," she said. "Once we approve this item and we're able to open it up, then we can tell them, 'welcome home,' and that title of homelessness will no longer be accurate."
Mayor Steve Adler said city staff often can’t publicize potential real estate purchases ahead of council votes for confidentiality reasons. But, he said, the city could strike a better balance between quickly finding properties and notifying neighbors.
"If there's a better way to do this, I would like us to find it," he said.
Henri Daumas lives a stone's throw from the Rodeway Inn near I-35 and Oltorf Road – the first hotel the city bought to house folks transitioning out of homelessness. Like many of his neighbors, he expressed concern about the city buying the property. He thought there would be crime. He thought the neighborhood would completely change overnight. He thought, at the very least, there would be increased foot traffic.
Ahead of Thursday's vote, he told KUT none of those concerns materialized.
"There aren't any of the issues we projected, such as increased crime, lack of police presence and such," said Daumas, who is president of the Timber Ridge Homeowners Association and has lived in the neighborhood since 2015. "None of that's happened, so that's good."
He said ECHO, which manages the property, kept its promise of keeping neighbors in the loop and has held monthly meetings on the project.
"So far they've kept to their word as to how it's being managed, and so we have no ongoing concerns," he said.
If people who live near either of the two hotels the city just bought "want to get an opinion from someone who's living through it," he said, "they're welcome to call me."